Is nanotechnology safe? In a new article for The World Today, Dr Robert Falkner surveys the evidence and latest thinking about the possible risks of nanoparticles.
Dr Falkner, lecturer in International Relations at LSE, suggests that as the scientific debate intensifies, governments around the world will soon have to take tough decisions about whether or not to regulate the emerging technology.
In the June edition of the magazine - the journal of Chatham House - Dr Falkner writes: 'Public understanding of nanotechnologies and their associated risks is still paltry, despite a growing safety debate among scientists and regulatory experts. As so often in modern industrial history, regulators are struggling to keep up with technological innovation.'
Nanotech products are made by scientists creating or altering particles at the molecular level - 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. In the process, they can change the chemical properties of the material itself.
This uncertainty about how nanomaterial might behave, explains Dr Falkner, is already causing alarm for many. One study, for example, claims that inhaling nano-tubes may cause lung damage. The Soil Association has refused to describe as 'organic' any food or cosmetics containing nanotechnology. Now insurers, including giants Swiss Re and Munich Re, have joined calls for more study to help them assess the possible risks.
So far, writes Dr Falkner, the response from governments has been 'wait and see' - but that approach is unlikely to last: 'None of the leading nanotech countries wants to undercut the huge growth and innovation potential that nanotechnology presents. But as pressures grow for regulators to act on safety concerns, the search for the right balance between regulatory precaution and technology promotion is bound to become more complicated.'
In particular, he argues, there is the potential for tension between the European Union and the United States over the right approach to regulation unless they can agree on a coherent and effective system for managing nanotechnology.
The full article, Who's Afraid of Nanotech?, is available at http://personal.lse.ac.uk/FALKNER/_private/FalknerNanotechWorldTodayJune2008.pdf
Dr Falkner is co-ordinator of Regulating Nanotechnologies in the EU and US, a transatlantic collaborative research project involving researchers from LSE, Chatham House, Environmental Law Institute and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
For more information contact:
Dr Robert Falkner 020 7955 6347
LSE Press Office 020 7955 7440
28 May 2008